It’s almost the end of the year again, and with most of my photography is done, it is once again time to look back and pick out the ten best images of the year.
“Best” is, of course, a rather loose term. In some cases, these are images that are emblematic or reflective of the directions my photography took over the course of the year. In other cases, they are images that simply appealed to me on some more personal level. I’m hardly an objective or unbiased observer, so forgive my skewed and imperfect list.
The setting sun reflects in the mud flats of Astoria, as the Winter tide slowly rolls in from the mouth of the Columbia River. Much of the town’s industry once sat perched over the mud on piers like these, but the ever changing economy has removed most of the docks and warehouses that once perched upon them. In some places, old boilers still stand, remnants of forgotten canneries.
Today, Astoria’s waterfront has far more tourism along it. A large resort hotel has moved in on one pier, and restaurants overhang the water along others. The old rail line now serves as a seasonal trolley route, and a new dock serves visits from numerous cruise ships each year. Yet in spite of this, there is still a pleasant blue-collar atmosphere to the port as well as the city. Cruise passengers reportedly enjoy seeing the large piles of export logs, noting that they feel they are in a real working seaport town instead of just another tourist trap. And unlike almost all of the ocean-side cities of Oregon and Washington, Astoria has a healthy balance of basic economy that keeps it from feeling like a giant, low-rent carnival.
This photograph was made on New Year’s Day, on a brief weekend visit to my favorite coastal town.
TriMet 1702, one of two RDCs refurbished for use on the Westside Express Service commuter rail line, at Wilsonville on January 24, 2011, its first day of revenue service. Portland & Western Engineer Ken Nichols leans out of the window for a classic engineer’s pose.
WES is practically in my backyard, a commuter rail service that links outlying Wilsonville with inner suburbs like Tigard and Beaverton. Unfortunately the system was troubled by new equipment that proved to be unreliable at first, and TriMet bought the RDCs — stainless teel self-propelled cars built in the 1950s — as backup power. They are nice in their own way, with a vintage feel inside, though they don’t have the heating and air conditioning power of the newer vehicles, nor their free on board WiFi Internet access.
Here, just outside of Madras, the importance of railroads to small towns was driven home. 100 years to the day, the citizens of Madras celebrate, through a re-enactment, the arrival of the Oregon Trunk Railroad in their town. This event cannot be overstated. Prior to the OT, Madras was a tiny village in an area of ORegon that was largely inaccessible by any modern means, an area the size of Massachusetts. The OT brought the upper Deschuttes River country into the modern world.
After the event, in the cold snows of February, the entire town was invited to visit the depot at Metolius, also celebrating its centennial, and enjoy a community meal. Barbecue, carrot cake, corn, and memories, all served in the freight section of an old railroad station. Oregon at its finest.
Kent is one of a number of towns along US 97 in Central Oregon, north of Madras. Being located on a two lane highway, students of geography would assume that towns such as Kent would have blossomed during the 20th Century. Perhaps they did once, but if so, there is little evidence to show it now. Towns such as Shaniko, Kent, and to a lesser extent Grass Valley and Moro have slowly withered. The Columbia Southern Railroad came here first, but it was always a branch that stubbed at lonely Shaniko; a through route bypassed the branch before the Second World War, and the branch came up in segments, the last remnant gone by the 1960s.
Today, the towns live on as clusters of homes and forsaken, abandoned commercial shacks that huddle at the feet of grain elevators. This pair at Kent is particularly evocative. At the back is a large set of concrete silos, probably dating to mid-century, and now equipped with a brand new digital truck scale. In the foreground is a tall, classic, wooden structure, but built in an interesting form, with big fat boards set flat and interwoven at the corners, like brickwork. Despite its total lack of paint, it seems strong and sturdy, with no outward signs of rot, and has likely been in continuous use for a century. Both structures align to the now gone Columbia Southern, and both hang on as part of the see-sawing grain economy of the region.
Highway or no, Kent, along with the other towns of Sherman County, feels as lonely as any spot I have ever visited in the Northwest. There are mysteries here — a graveyard solely occupied by children, all dead within ten years of each other, lurks to the south of town. There is a sense of isolated, inward lives, of forgotten despair, of dreams unrealized. Perhaps above all else is the stark beauty of the land, the vistas that roll ever onward, and the feeling that the region is far bigger than the mossy, dank, dripping fir tree stereotype that, even in the cities of Western Oregon and Washington, seems so pervasive despite its inaccuracy.
2011 saw the centennial of one of the more interesting and also forgotten pieces of architecture in the Northwest, Tacoma Union Station. The building was designed by Reed & Stem, the same firm that gave the world New York’s Grand Central Terminal. For Tacoma, they designed a homage to Rome’s Pantheon, a grand dome standing about 90 feet above the lobby floor, and roofed in with copper. Although not the largest such facility in the region, it was one of the more efficiently designed, and certainly it holds a grandeur that belies its modest footprint. It is no lightweight: its walls are a good fourteen feet thick in places!
Sadly, much like rail passenger service in general, the station declined through the second half of the last century. By the 1980s it was in such bad shape that Amtrak moved out to a new, boring, modern facility further from the center of town, and the building was roped off as unsafe. Intrepid local volunteers, however, rallied support, and after much hard work, restoration of the building was funded. The structure reopened in full glory in 1992, converted to a federal court house.
Here, under the oculus of the dome, hangs another piece of artwork from Tacoma, a chandelier designed by local glass artist Dale Chihuly. Chihuly’s glass adorns many parts of the old station, but this central hanging, which resembles a collection of oddities pulled from the sea, is probably the most spectacular. Though vastly different from the mixture of neoclassical and Beaux Arts style of the structure, somehow these sleek forms seem at home here.
Sadly the conversion means the station is no longer a station, which in some ways is a shame; of all the station buildings along the I-5 corridor, none are as impressive or inspiring as this. Yet the structure survives, and its second use guarantees it a long life ahead.
My thanks to the Government Services Administration to allowing access to photograph this structure.
The skyline photograph is perhaps one of the oldest forms of urban photography. The form could be considered the portrait applied to the city. We all know them. Anyone who ever watches the local news can see them in various forms of quality (or lack thereof) behind the news-anchors. They get used on billboards, in tourist promotions, as web site banners.
This is not, however, the typical Portland skyline. Usually they are shot from near the foot of the Hawthorne Bridge, showing that span and the KOIN tower and the Wells Fargo tower. This view, centered on the US Bancorp Tower, is not usually chosen, but it’s hard to understand the reason why. The city here looks far more impressive, and shot as it is at an oblique angle, the towers are shown to far more advantage. The Hawthorne view is more a side view, and can sometimes seem to be two-dimentional, giving no feel of scope to the city.
There are other, better viewpoints to the city out there, I think. Some still need exploration, but I suspect a view from further north will yield a truer vista of the city as it is now, which, with the South Waterfront and the Pearl, is far, far more urban than it was just a decade ago.
The funny thing is, of course, that nearly every city can be made to look this glittering and glamorous with a skyline photo — is it really true, though? Like a hilltop vista, there is enough distance between the camera lens and the dirty, scroungy, everyday level of life that the flaws seem to disappear. In this view of Portland, you can’t see the crack addicts freezing on the streets of old town, the mentally ill homeless, the immature bar brawls, the catcalls of college frats visiting the city for a wild friday night on the town. Everything looks sweeping, gilded, luscious. It’s the visual equivalent of one of my favorite pieces of syrupy 1960s jazz, Oscar Peterson’s take on “Wandering”.
How real is real? Is the dirty, scroungy, cigarette-butt-littered street view the real Portland? Or perhaps, for all my critical comments, is there also something just as real about idealized views like these? Is there not room for a picture of aspiration? Skylines, after all, are part nostalgia — the myth of who we were or are — and part aspiration, the myth of what we wish we were and wish to be.
We’re a long way from the economy of a century ago. Small factories rarely remain in use, and warehouses hav grown larger and larger and are usually located out by the freeways and served by big rig trucks. In the centers of the small towns that once were the commercial hubs of rural Oregon, the industrial districts, like this one in Medford, are mostly quiet places. The mainline of the railroad makes a bee-line through town, and few spurs now split from it to serve the buildings backing up to the steel road.
Bridges are rarely boring, but rarely are bridges in the agricultural valleys of the Pacific Slope so impressive as this one. Here at Redding, California, the Sacramento River is far below the valley floor, almost in a coulee. To cross it, the Southern Pacific Railroad constructed a massive curved steel trestle, only part of which can be seen here. The trees are bare, the Winter sun is shining, and a manifest freight charges northwards towards Oregon.
Portland is a postcard city. Much like Vancouver, B.C., it has become an example of urban planning and design for other metropolises across North America. Photographs of our light rail trains, our streetcars, our food carts, our restaurants, our waterfront, our public spaces, our farmers markets, our condominiums, etcetera etcetera etcetera abound.
But there are two sides to every postcard, and this is one of them. Despite our alleged respect for historic structures, we have always been at the bleeding edge of poor decision making, such as tearing down bits of our urban fabric to shove in parking lots. This one was ground zero, “built” (if one can actually “build” a lot) in the 1930s at the expense of a handsome office and commercial building. It is poetic irony that the billboard painted upon the flanking wall advertises for a car dealer.
While there is a ban on new surface parking lots within the downtown, and has been for a very long time, up until the 1970s we continued this horrendously short-sighted trend of trading historic structures for surface parking. Worse, since that time, elected officials, the city government, property owners, and local developers have done absolutely nothing to repair the damage.
Today, some argue that recreations of historic structures are the only appropriate buildings to place into these slots. Others attempt to design sleek, modern structures that evoke more contemporary tastes. Often the best of the proposed replacements have their own potential ripped from them by well intentioned but horridly wrong efforts to force new structures to posses “context,” which means, in plain english, that they must sit down, shut up, and not have any role as buildings in their own right except to not distract from the remaining historic portions.
In truth, all this arguing has done only one thing: maintain the lots as is, places that encourage crime, discourage walking, and lower the value of the most precious and historic core of the city.
Portland is, despite the popular notions of many, first and foremost a port. Located 100 miles upriver from the Ocean, it may seem unlikely that Portland could be more than a backwater today, a place that barely clings to its maritime roots through legacy and inertia alone. Such is not, however, the case. While almost no container traffic comes or goes from Portland, the public and private terminals of the city are one of the top export ports in the nation. More impressive yet, the amount of grain handed by Portland is greater than any other port on the continent, and the city holds the crown of third largest grain export terminal in the world.
Here, in April, is one of those grain ships: the San Juan Navigation Company Orcas, less than one year old, departing Portland Harbor bound for Asia, riding low in the river from a hold full of Northwest wheat. Downtown hovers on the horizon, and in the foreground, the river bears the shadow of the high Gothic St. Johns Bridge, probably the most beautiful suspension span in the world.
Looking at the trends, if any, a few emerge. First is more color: last year was all black-and-white, and this year it’s about 50/50. Indeed, one of the images — number 9 — is color print film, Kodak Ektar 100, part of a test run of this film. While I still find black-and-white a strong part of my work, for the first time in recent memory I’m ending the year still having film in the fridge. I think that my long absence from meaningful quantities of color work has given me a more discerning eye for it. I feel more comfortable with it, and I’ve gotten well past that trap of viewing color itself as a substitute for other, more important things, like composition and purpose.
It may or may not be apparent in the images, but this was also a year of greater intent in each image.
About half the shots here were pre-planned or re-shot as refinements of earlier ideas. There were far fewer cohesive projects, and far more site visits for writing and journalism projects. Lastly, there was more travel: less than half of the images here are from the Portland metropolitan region.
As usual, there are still a few rolls from 2011 undeveloped as I write this, and there are further a number of developed images that are as yet unscanned and uncorrected. Looking forward, I expect a return to more planned projects, but I also expect less photography in general, as the year is already filling with many writing projects.
And next, 2012.